Which Rick Do You Pick?

The question is meant as a little idle chitchat as I walk into Rick Lazio’s Capitol Hill office and meet him for the first time. “Hey, how you doing?” I say.

But the congressman who wants to be the next senator from the great state of New York answers with a weary exhale and a surprising solemnity.

“I’m doing okay, I’m doing okay,” Lazio says, settling heavily into a chair. “You know, it’s a, it’s a, I don’t know how you would characterize it, it’s a, it transforms your life. Your privacy changes, you have to manage all the additional stress and intensity of it. Most importantly, I think, is, um, is just to kind of try and be yourself, you know. Just keep your sense of self. That’s a lot easier said than done. People push you and pull you to try and conform to what someone else thinks you should be, and you just, it takes having your friends and family around saying, ‘Be yourself, be yourself, be yourself.’ “

Lazio has landed squarely on the central question. Is he “a friend of the arts” who helped save the National Endowment for the Arts, or the foe of “Sensation” who voted to strip the Brooklyn Museum of its federal funding? How can he be solidly in the mainstream of New York political philosophy and best pals with Texas right-winger Dick Armey? How can he serve up steak-tartare-Republican phrases like “the Hollywood elite” when one of his closest friends is a Democrat who is co-chairman of ABC Entertainment Television?

The next morning, part of the reason for Lazio’s somber mood becomes clear: The front page of the Times carries a tough story implying that Lazio’s 600 percent profit from his first foray into stock options is the result of insider information from Lazio campaign donors. Lazio will attribute his big score to good luck, and the bad publicity to a vast left-wing conspiracy led by Hillary Clinton. But even if the stock questions are resolved, it will do little to answer that core question: When Rick Lazio is being himself, who is he?

“There are people who can stay true to their positions but are able to pivot and work across the board. Like Rick.”

Since Rudy Giuliani’s cancer and deeply weird romantic life thrust Lazio into the Senate contest in late May, discussion of the Long Island Republican has revolved around issues, policies, votes. “Trying to define Rick Lazio is like trying to screw-gun Jell-O to a plywood wall,” says Tony Bullock, a Long Islander who has known Lazio for twelve years and is now Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s chief of staff. “He wants to please everybody, so he votes different ways at different times.”

“That’s ridiculous,” retorts Bill Paxon, the ex-Republican congressman from Buffalo. “People want to be able to say the Republican Party is a bunch of right-wing nuts, and the minute somebody steps forward who is slightly to the left of right wing, they say, ‘Oh, they’re just malleable. They couldn’t possibly have achieved any success if they weren’t political prostitutes.’ It’s obvious there are people who are able to stay true to their philosophical positions but have the ability to pivot and work across the board. Like Rick.”

Lazio’s votes can be stacked to prove contradictory points. Delineating the character of the man is more important and more interesting. Though both candidates are baby-boomers, they’re from different psychic generations. Consider: 26-year-old Hillary Rodham was a staff member for the Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Richard Nixon. Rick Lazio was 16 at the time, a boy who revered his father – and the elder Lazio, who knew the president, epitomized Nixon’s Silent Majority.

Clinton, the product of polarizing times, inspires hate or love; Lazio, who came of age in the disco-seventies gap between the hippies and the yuppies, inspires like. Even Lazio’s friends cite his amiability as his foremost quality, and then struggle to come up with a second distinguishing characteristic.

To win the Senate race, Lazio is counting on the deep reservoir of bad will amassed by Hillary Clinton. And that might be enough. But no matter how many people hate Hillary, Rick Lazio’s fate will ultimately turn on whether he is finally able to become his own man.

The auditorium stage is crowded with silver hair and heroism. Five dozen American survivors of the Normandy invasion have gathered at the Long Island campus of St. John’s University to receive awards from the French and American governments. The man bestowing the medals and firmly shaking each vet’s hand is Congressman Rick Lazio. He’s immaculate in a navy single-breasted suit. Lazio stands upright and delivers crisp salutes, genuinely humbled, partly because when he looks in the faces of the old soldiers, he sees his father.

The Army didn’t send Tech Sergeant Tony Lazio to Normandy, but he did win several World War II medals. Then he came home to Long Island, married Olive Christensen, and opened an auto-parts store in Lindenhurst to support their growing family, first three daughters and then the son who inherited his love for politics.

“Tony was my right-hand man when it came to the hoo-rah, getting people excited,” says Buzz Schwenk, chairman of the Suffolk Republican Party for most of the seventies, when the Suffolk GOP was at the peak of its dominance. “Rick’s father was more hard-assed than Rick is. I’m not saying Rick takes a walk on anything, but his father was more strident. Rick kind of rolls with the punches better than his dad did.”

Tony Lazio helped launch the first black Kiwanis Club in Suffolk County, for which he took considerable grief, but mostly he organized barbecues and drove visiting dignitaries like Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and Ronald Reagan to the airport. Tony Lazio’s connections with the Republican and Conservative parties would eventually pay off for Rick, but childhood friends wondered how he stomached the endless fund-raisers where he was dressed neatly in polo shirts and expected to be polite to all his elders. Lazio recalls disagreeing with his formidable father only once. “He was a very proud vet from World War II – my mom was also a veteran; she was a Wave – but he did not want me to go to Vietnam,” Lazio recalls. “And I said, ‘You know, I’m gonna go. I want to go.’ ” The draft ended, however, when Lazio was 15.

Classmates and faculty at West Islip High School describe a polite and hard-working kid who collected stamps and worked on the senior-prom committee and played the Rolling Stones on electric guitar. “There were interesting characters in the school,” says Lazio’s class of ‘76 classmate Bob Morris, now a frequent contributor to the Times, “but Rick just wasn’t interesting. He was very average and agreeable – dungarees and corduroys and crewneck sweaters. Ultimately, he is the embodiment of the place, which is sort of banal.”

Ron Riccio, the high school’s former social-studies-department chairman, tries to put Lazio’s home turf into a larger context. “If you blindfold someone and bring them back to West Islip, they’d think they were in the fifties, whether it was really the seventies, eighties, or nineties,” Riccio says. “For a long time, people referred to the town as ‘White Islip.’ “

In an early show of Lazio’s open-mindedness, among his best friends was Terry Maresca, a Native American girl whose family was on welfare. “The commonality was service,” says Maresca, who also went to college with Lazio and is now a Seattle doctor treating indigent families. “Regardless of sex or background, if you were committed, that was the common denominator to be friends with Rick – if you wanted to serve the greater good, even if you disagreed on how that manifested itself.”

Yet in many ways, physically and philosophically, Lazio has never strayed far from home. The one idiosyncratic choice Lazio ever made was to attend Vassar College. He says he picked it for its proximity to Long Island and its small size; with his modest high-school grades, the chance to get an Ivy League-caliber education was attractive, too.

“I’d love to be able to tell you I saw Rick puking his guts out or tripping, but I can’t,” says Matt Brelis, who like Lazio majored in political science at Vassar and is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter. “I don’t recall seeing him at Matthew’s Mug, which was the campus bar, at all. He was just sort of white-bread, a good Do Bee.”

Lazio wrote for the student newspaper, but both he and the editor at the time, Laurie Wimmer, can’t remember a single subject Lazio covered. “There was a lot of tumult going on on campus – divestiture from South Africa was a very, very volatile issue at Vassar – and he always kept an arm’s length from it,” Wimmer says.

To Lazio, the most significant event during his college years was entirely personal. His father suffered a stroke in 1978. Tony Lazio’s right arm and leg were paralyzed, and his ability to speak was severely limited.

“Rick’s house was a nice, middle-class split-level in Babylon, and they had built this contraption to get his father, who was in a wheelchair, up and down the stairs,” says Lloyd Braun, then a Vassar friend and now one of ABC’s top executives. “Mr. Lazio was going up the stairs and Rick was right next to him, and they got to the top of the stairs and I remember Rick kissing him on his forehead. The look on Rick’s father’s face was joy. Rick was 19, and you would have thought he was 40, just in terms of compassion.”

Tony Lazio died in 1985. “Rick was groomed by his dad,” says Michael Moriarty, who met Lazio in law school and is now his brother-in-law. “I remember Rick telling stories about being a kid and going to Election Night parties, putting up bunting and stuff. His dad was making sure if the right opportunity presented itself, Rick could take advantage of it. I’ve never talked to Rick about the ambition that drives him, but I think it goes back to his dad. Rick feels that he’s living the life that his father set him up to lead – meeting his own debt to his father for giving him opportunities he never had.”

For law school, Lazio chose American University in Washington, in large measure for the school’s proximity to political action. The Republican district attorney in Suffolk County hired Lazio as a prosecutor; in 1989, after a couple of years in private practice, he easily won a seat in the Suffolk legislature. “I sat next to him for three years because our districts were adjacent,” says Sondra Bachety, a Democrat from Babylon. “He doesn’t do much, but he’s very pleasant.”

Lazio’s 1992 race against Downey has become the stuff of myth: Underfunded underdog knocks off nine-term, nationally known, seemingly untouchable congressional power. Much of the myth is true, but one crucial element is misleading. Lazio started off with little cash, but when Downey was severely weakened by his involvement in the House Bank check-cashing mess, the national Republican Party heaped money on the race – “stuffing it into every one of Downey’s orifices,” in the vivid words of Rich Bond, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time. “And Rick worked his ass off,” Bond says.

The cratering Long Island economy certainly helped feed the dissatisfaction with the incumbent and anticipated by two years the Republican revolution that took over the House. When Newt Gingrich became Speaker, he needed moderate allies and waived a House rule to allow Lazio to sit on two powerful committees, Banking and Commerce. Lazio also rose to become chairman of the House Housing subcommittee and later grew tight with Dick Armey, the House majority leader.

“It’s fair to say that philosophically there’s more distance between Rick and Armey than Rick and Newt, yet he’s maintained very positive relationships with the various regimes, and with the various power players in Congress,” says Bob Ehrlich, a Republican congressman from Maryland and a close friend of Lazio’s. “Rick’s personality has allowed him to do that, his likability, his charisma.”

Lazio says his closeness to the conservative-Republican leadership has changed it rather than him, enabling Lazio to work behind the scenes to help beat back attempts to shutter the NEA and the Housing and Urban Development agency. His climb also stepped on some Republican toes. In 1998, with Gingrich becoming an albatross to the GOP, Bill Paxon maneuvered to oust the House speaker. Lazio sided with Gingrich and Armey against Paxon. Lazio’s allegiance wasn’t decisive, but Gingrich crushed Paxon’s revolt, and the Buffalo Republican soon quit Congress.

Today Paxon professes to have no hurt feelings, but his wife, Susan Molinari, is still a little sore. “Why would I want to be part of a profile of Rick Lazio?” she snaps, then suggests calling back after she’s had time to think it over. Two weeks later, Molinari says, “I’m just not comfortable talking about Rick as a candidate. If I wanted to tell you why, I’d do the interview.” Still later, after overhearing Paxon praise Lazio, Molinari comes to the phone. “I’m supporting Rick,” she says. “He wants this very badly and will do what needs to be done to win.”

The first time I saw Lazio in person was in mid-May, at a Conservative Party dinner in Manhattan. Lazio and everyone else were still waiting for Rudy Giuliani to jump in or out. Lazio was in black tie, and as the cocktail hour ended, Alfonse D’Amato wrapped him in a hug that seemed as much death grip as warm embrace. As Lazio smiled and squirmed, an image leapt to mind: Fredo. Not to suggest any Mafia-related slur, of course, but Lazio looked for all the world like the hapless Godfather character played by John Cazale to D’Amato’s ruthless Al Pacino.

This afternoon, in Washington, seeing Lazio sparks a different association: soccer dad. In his office, political mementos are mostly hidden; a framed photo of a shaggier-haired Lazio shaking hands with President George Bush is stuck on a wall behind the bathroom door. Pictures of Lazio’s 6- and 8-year-old daughters – giggling in face paint, snuggling with Dad on the beach – clutter all the desks, and brightly colored construction-paper artwork hangs everywhere. Two Lazio press aides perch on a couch, a level of staffing that seems overprotective.

On TV and on the stump, Lazio’s features can look unformed, his skin unlined by the cares visited upon most married men with a mortgage and a couple of kids. Up close, the gray in Lazio’s hair is easily visible. He laughs deeply and frequently, tilting his head back and guffawing at the ceiling so hard he shakes. Speaking quietly, his a’s are flattened and stretched in a Kennedyish way that doesn’t show up in Lazio’s glycemic public-speaking style.

When his suit jacket is off, Lazio’s shoulders are narrow and slightly hunched. For a professional pol, he’s strikingly uninterested in stagecraft or even salesmanship: There are no invitations to tag along on the campaign plane, and his mother, wife, and three sisters won’t get on the phone to sing Lazio’s praises. Interview time, already brief, is interrupted so Lazio can pose for pictures with insurance-industry reps.

“They’re pushing Rick too hard,” a friend says about his staff. “He has to find a way to say no, and that’s hard for him.”

The day before, Hillary Clinton had ripped Lazio’s abortion votes: in favor of legal abortion but against Medicaid funding. I frame a question using Clinton’s rhetoric, to give Lazio maximum room to swat away her argument: “So,” I say, “are you really for abortions for rich people only?”

The two press handlers, silent to this point, jump in faster than Bobby Knight disputing a referee’s call. “No policy questions!” one shouts. “We’ll do issues next week! Just biography today!”

Lazio recognizes the awkwardness of the moment, his eyes darting darkly at the aides. “Let me just take this if I can,” he says. “Because I think it’s, you know, it’s, when I was talking about trying to remain myself, um, what that also means to me is not to get baited into a conflict that doesn’t represent what I want for this race, for this campaign. And um, I think it, I understood and understand that, um, the other camp is going to turn negative on me. I understand intellectually – when they can’t move in the polls, the only way to do that is just to try to sling mud at the other person. Try and bring the other guy down, I guess. And, um, in my heart I hope it’s, they’ll get off it, and they’ll go – we’ll have a good debate on the issues.” Lazio goes on like this for a while, without ever addressing abortion, until his handlers declare time is up, with a guarantee of substance next week.

Same place, seven days later, I toss Lazio a pop-culture personality quiz: Starbucks or Greek-diner coffee? “I don’t drink coffee,” Lazio says with a laugh. “Very, very rarely. My wife drinks it; I love smelling it.”

Mac or IBM? “IBM,” he says. “I didn’t get into it when the Macs were really hot, and I have a Dell now.”

Springsteen or Billy Joel? “Springsteen,” Lazio answers without hesitation. Then, quietly, with a bit of embarrassment but undeniable enthusiasm, his voice thinner and higher than the Boss’s, Lazio sings, “The screen door slams …”

Any congressman who loves “Thunder Road” can’t be all bad. But then Lazio adds, “I’m not crazy about the Diallo stuff, though” – a reference to Springsteen’s new song about the police shooting of the unarmed peddler, and a reminder of the primary criticism of Lazio, that he’s indecisive and tries to straddle every issue, no matter how big or small.

How is it consistent, I ask Lazio, to work to save the National Endowment for the Arts and then censure the Brooklyn Museum for hanging dung-flecked paintings of the Virgin Mary?

“Oh, they’re totally consistent,” he says. “I think they’re totally consistent. I believe in, uh, a sense of public dollars supporting the arts. I am totally comfortable with the idea of public support for the arts. But I think you can also say, ‘This stuff is garbage,’ you know, ‘and if you want to, if you want to exhibit it, that’s your business, no one can stop you from exhibiting it, but use your own dollars for that.’ Frankly, it makes my life as an advocate for the arts, for public funding for the arts, very, very difficult. So it was poor judgment, I think, on the part of the folks over at the Brooklyn Museum.”

So you want to fund the arts but attach more strings? “There are things I support in every program,” Lazio says. “I support the military and the national defense; I’m not too happy about $600 toilet-seat covers or hammers. So you have to make reasonable distinctions and speak out when you think it’s wrong.”

On gun control, Lazio is even more opaque. His home county of Suffolk has some of the state’s most stringent gun-registration laws. Does Lazio, who has opposed similar measures, believe Suffolk is wrong? “No,” he says. “I think the question is whether the federal government does it. The other more important question is, in an era in which we have such technological advance possible – smart guns, DNA for bullets and for guns – that’s the direction I think we ought to be looking at.”

Lazio has cast thousands of votes in Congress on everything from impeachment to prescription-drug benefits, but when asked to name one principled stand he’s taken that’s cost him politically, he has to reach all the way back to the eighteen-member Suffolk County legislature and a 1992 plan to raise sales taxes by half a cent that had been crafted by the Republican county executive, Bob Gaffney. “He felt it was necessary to raise the sales tax and to deficit-borrow for operating costs,” Lazio says. “And I felt, for me philosophically, that was totally abhorrent to do that. And I voted no on that. And for a while the Republican Establishment walked away from me. And this was in the middle of a congressional campaign, we were being badly outspent, and we were fairly far behind in the polls.”

Yet if his vote alienated the local Republican organization (briefly), it helped Lazio as much, if not more, in the eyes of voters he was courting in his race against Tom Downey. Lazio also mentions the hundreds of calls he got opposing nafta and the assault-weapons ban. In the end, Lazio voted in favor of both. “But,” he allows, “I never felt like it really cost me.”

Lazio is right about one thing: He is what a moderate looks like in the modern American political age. Any politician who isn’t a crazy winger or naïvely idealistic, who has a desire to stay in office – and after enduring the first brutal, soul-killing electoral ordeal and winning, who wouldn’t want to stick around and accumulate some seniority? – ends up appearing a mass of contradictions. And if he’s lucky, he gets to do a few good things along the way.

Mr. Nice Guy is yelling at an aide. “Let’s go!” Lazio barks. “I should have been out of here 40 minutes ago!” It’s 4:30, and Lazio is dashing to National Airport for a private-plane flight to Greenwich, for an early-evening fund-raiser. Already today Lazio has missed his own press conference decrying the rise in gasoline prices, and he knows that if he misses any congressional votes tonight, the Clinton campaign will fry him in the papers again. So after gripping and grinning in Greenwich, Lazio will fly back to Washington, where he’ll vote on House bills until nearly midnight, then fly to New York so he can speak at the Association for a Better New York breakfast. When his phone rings the next morning, Lazio is disoriented, asking, “What day is it? Where am I?”

Last week a chaotic Manhattan fund-raiser had Lazio’s friends grumbling about the management of the campaign. “They’re pushing Rick too hard. He cannot continue this torrid pace,” says a longtime Lazio pal. “Rick has to find a way to say no, and that’s hard for him.”

After his ABNY speech, Lazio is literally backed into a corner at the Waldorf as two dozen reporters grill him about his 1997 stock killing. Lazio, whose wife is also named Pat, stirs memories of Pat Nixon’s “respectable Republican cloth coat” by saying, “You know, I spoke to my wife last night about this. She said, ‘Listen, you know what? We’re honest, decent people. I clean my own house. They’re trying to drag you down into the mud; don’t let them do it.’ And I’m not going to let them do it.”

Lazio contends that his profit in Quick & Reilly stock was the result of luck, not insider information, and that his otherwise trifling investment returns, “5 to 10 percent,” are evidence that he’s been making his picks without illegal insight. Yet it’s the rarity of his big gain, combined with his closeness to the company’s principals, that makes the deal seem so fishy. On May 18, one day before Giuliani quit the Senate race, I asked Michael Moriarty, Lazio’s brother-in-law and now his campaign’s counsel, to name the subject he teases Rick about most. “His constant carp is that everybody’s boat seems to have risen but his,” Moriarty said with a laugh. “That’s a constant source of needling – his constant refrain of stock-market lapses, his terrible failures of investment in the stock market.”

Perhaps Lazio did get lucky. Perhaps he got tired of watching those other boats rise. Regardless, his failure to place his investments in a blind trust shows surprisingly poor political judgment. Lazio has sat on the House Banking Committee for six years and Commerce for three, so his insistence on continuing as an active stock trader – whether he ever did anything wrong or not – left him wide open to charges of conflict of interest.

It’s morning again in West Islip. A day after Lazio was sweating at the Waldorf, the scene is breezy and bright on the high-school football field. On this cloudless Saturday, Lazio has returned to deliver the commencement speech to the class of 2000. After bonding with the 307 graduating seniors by evoking the landmarks of eternal Long Island teen-hood – “parking field five at Jones Beach” – Lazio challenges the kids to strive for happiness and not material wealth. But he makes the point by telling them, “Don’t mortgage your entire life in wild pursuit of a bigger paycheck, a higher stock-option package, and a vacation home in the Catskills,” an oddly tone-deaf choice of references, since Lazio is being investigated by the SEC.

Between shaking hands with each of the graduates as they file across the stage to receive their diploma, Lazio glances out into the middle distance. It’s hard to tell whether his mind is wandering or whether he’s searching for something. Spend any time around Lazio and there’s sure to be a glimmer that he appreciates how profoundly absurd modern politics has become. There’s a tilt of his head and the beginning of a wisecracking smile, and you can tell the regular guy is still alive in there. Lazio ambles from the podium and muses on the distance he’s traveled in 24 years. “Yeah, being here does make me want to be 18 again,” he says. “Especially when the kids are saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Lazio, wanna go to a party?’ ” he says, laughing and putting on his best Long Island-stoner voice.

But now it’s time for another “press avail,” feeding the daily beast. Lazio stands in front of a cinder-block wall painted bright blue and gold with the West Islip Lions logo. A Post reporter asks Lazio his reaction to the fact that after merely one month of the campaign, both Clinton and Lazio spokesminions are hurling the word “desperate” at the other camp. Lazio starts to roll his eyes; his head tilts; he snorts out a self-deprecating laugh and seems as if he’s about to pronounce all of this posturing meaningless and wildly silly … but he isn’t John McCain, and the guy with a sense of irony suddenly recedes and Lazio slips back into robo-candidate mode, talking about how he expects to be outspent, hitting all the poll-tested notes that summon Hillary’s negatives, blah blah blah.

Lazio peels off his black graduation robe and hops into the back seat of a gleaming ivory SUV, driving off to spend the rest of his day begging strangers for money, and a little more of that earnest 18-year-old who graduated on this football field fades away, replaced by the adult Rick Lazio has grown up to be: not evil. Not noble. Just thoroughly pragmatic. The cool kids from high school who became hip adults mock Lazio, but the vast mainstream lives in his banal and decent world of play dates, rising gas prices, and bartered ideals. And they may recognize enough of themselves in Lazio to elect the son of the Silent Majority New York’s next senator.

Which Rick Do You Pick?